Saturday, December 20, 2008

In Peyton Manning We Trust

His name belongs with the greats.

Montana. Unitas. Brown. Rice. Butkus.


Sounds right.

Don't you see what's happening with Peyton Manning this year, right now? He hasn't just had his most valuable season, he's begun the process of transcending mere first-ballot Hall-of-Fame status and becoming a sacrosanct legend.

Manning was already a lock for Canton before this season, with his gaudy and mind-numbing regular season numbers (we take them for granted, bored by their consistency, but they are the best ever), two MVP's, and Super Bowl trophy.

But his career still lacked that something extra, that thing that separates great players from hallowed ones.

It's one thing to put up a bunch of crazy stats and win a bunch of games and even win a championship when the conditions are relatively amicable. But Michael Jordan's finest hour was his last one, in his final season with the Bulls, aged 35, when he led Chicago to a 62-win season and a championship despite Scottie Pippen missing 38 games during the regular campaign and being practically debilitated by a back injury by the last game of the Finals. Muhammad Ali's greatest athletic triumph came at 32, when he was considered past his prime and even Howard Cosell said he had no chance versus the younger, seemingly indestructible George Foreman, but knocked Big George out, anyway.

Manning came into this season not fully recovered from two offseason surgeries on his left knee and missed all of training camp and the preseason. The Colts struggled out of the gate, limping to a 3-4 start as Peyton threw only 10 touchdowns versus 9 interceptions. Bill Simmons asked if Manning was "sleeping in the same bathtub of plaster Dan Marino used from 1995-1998?" I wrote an article (which never saw the light of day) about the mortality of athletes, and it centered around Manning, now 32 and looking like a shell of his former self.

So what happens? He spends the first half of the season playing himself into form, and now the Colts have won eight straight, clinching a seventh consecutive playoff berth Tuesday night with a victory over the Jaguars in Jacksonville. Manning's line: 29-of-34, 364 yards, three touchdowns. During the winning streak, he has thrown 16 touchdowns and only three picks, in the process establishing himself as the favorite for a record-tying third MVP award and giving his career the substance that turns the greatest of players into mythical beings.

This season the Colts became the first team in NFL history to win 11 or more games in six straight seasons. But this is the least imposing of all of those squadrons. Bob Sanders has been hurt. That would be okay, because Bob Sanders is always hurt, but on top of that Manning's longtime center, Jeff Saturday, has been in and out of the lineup. So has Joseph Addai, and he's averaged only 3.5 yards per carry when he's played, same as his backup, Dominic Rhodes. As a result, the Colts are ranked 31st in the league in rushing. And Marvin Harrison, once the Frick to Manning's Frack, is, definitively - and understandably, at 36 - no longer the man he once was.

True greatness is measured in times of adversity.

And there is no question that watching Manning - not a kid anymore, coming off the first serious injury of his career, with three of his team's top seven players missing a combined 16 games, with his famous partner-in-crime finally acting his age - this year has been a more meaningful experience than watching him at any point in the previous ten (well, other than when he won the Super Bowl).

The Colts are older and more vulnerable now, and so is Manning. He doesn't seem as invincible now as he did just as recently as last year. But in a way, he seems more dangerous than ever. Mortality and the decline of the team around him have wounded him, but wounded animals are extremely dangerous. Which means the Colts are, too, because Manning has never been more indispensable to them and completely embodies their team at this point.

And so now, when you consider all of his accomplishments, when you consider the fact that he has not once missed a professional football game (he started the very first game of his rookie year and has started every game since), when you consider that he was one of those rare no. 1 overall picks that absolutely, positively lived up to every expectation that comes with being that selection (and then some), and when you consider what he has done this season, you must realize that 40 years from now, they'll show grainy old footage of Manning stretching or warming up before a game and it won't need any sound.

This year, Manning has become that kind of player.

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